Saturday, December 12, 2009

Chapter 12



12



There was something phenomenally peaceful about lying in this room with Flynn only a few feet away.

The man slept as quietly and straightforwardly as he did everything else. No snoring, no fidgeting, he simply lay face down, cheek on one hard forearm, and got on with the job at hand. Dale lay on his stomach and studied him, wondering from where he had got the impression of Flynn as 'big'. He was well built, slightly above average height, and the lines of shoulders and arms against the white linen showed muscles worked hard and daily, but he was lean and viewed objectively he wasn't unusually 'large' in any way. Yet awake, he seemed titanic.

Awake or asleep, he radiated an aura of sheer calm. Not the equanimity and hidden sparkle of Jasper's eyes and smile and lanky body. Not the comfortable serenity that shone out of Paul. Flynn radiated competence. Certainty and sheer strength, whether he was hauling bales, handling a horse or talking to you when you'd gone around the twist. Sleeping in his room with him like this, Dale knew, was supposed to be something in the realm of a punishment, but there was a safety in this room that wasn't supposed to exist outside the realms of children's stories. Dale had never felt so sheltered in his life. Nor had he ever felt so exposed, or worked so hard. Yesterday had been – there weren't words to adequately describe it. Cathartic. Both painful and ugly and an overwhelming relief, like having an abscessed tooth pulled.

Dale turned over onto his back and looked up at the window beyond the curtain. No one drew curtains in this house. They kept their time by daylight as farmers do, and the outside was too beautiful to shut away. For years, sleep had been something done in the early hours of the morning, crammed into the few hours spared for it. Here, where Flynn's rules were strict, you went to bed tired or not, and you stayed in bed until you were called. And so you lay, warm and comfortable and with the house peaceful around you and the faint outdoor sounds coming through the window, and your mind wandered and drifted like the river across the pastures.

"Hi."

Dale glanced over towards Flynn's bed, startled. Flynn gave him one of his quick smiles, rolling to his feet. "Been awake long?"

"Half an hour." Dale raised up on his elbows. "What time is it?"


"Just gone six." Flynn stretched his arms up over his head, making his shoulders crack. "A little early for breakfast. Suppose we grab something to eat from the kitchen and slip out quietly? I want to see where Bandit has the mares."





There was an odd sense of a treat in breaking the usual morning routine. Dale dressed in the now familiar jeans and t shirt, and in the kitchen pulled on boots and a Stetson while Flynn pulled rolls out of the bread bin. They ate while they collected tack from the stables, walked with it together down to the corral and Hammer came eagerly to the gate at the sight of Dale, huffing in the still cool morning air and swinging his big, dark head. Dale put a hand over his nose to push him back while he opened the gate, and thumped the heavy bulk of his neck low down where he liked it, slinging the saddle off his shoulder and across his broad back. Leo, pacing across to Flynn from the feed bins, stamped warningly at Gucci who was hopefully nosing at the tack Flynn carried and stuck his nose into the bridle as Flynn lifted it, with a very definite air of 'so there' aimed at his stable mate. Gucci was still huffing disappointedly over the gate at them when they mounted up and rode through the yard towards the home pastures that lay to the south of the ranch house.

It was bright, the sun starting to gather strength and turn the pastures emerald green and the overhead sky an electric blue, and to warm the saddles so that the leather scent was strong as they rode. The horses were fresh and keen to stretch their legs, and even stolid Hammer was difficult to keep down to a walk. Once the home pastures gate was shut behind them, Dale let Hammer's reins out and Hammer launched gladly into his long, easy canter that swept over the ground. He and Leo raced each other for a while and Flynn and Dale let them have their heads, jumping them over the small streams that cut through the green grass to the south west, heavy hooves thundering on the turf. As they came towards the valleys and the steep hills to the south of the airstrip, Flynn drew Leo down to a walk and Dale gathered Hammer in, bringing him around in a wide circle to walk beside Leo. The cantering had left them both breathless and Dale could never help the smile breaking across his face whenever he did it. It was more intoxicating than a rollercoaster, being part of a living, breathing, thinking locomotive like Hammer. Flynn caught his eye and Dale saw him smiling too, his face flushed with the morning cool and the exertion. There had never been anything like this sense of companionship anywhere in Dale's life before. The phrase 'working together' meant nothing, until it was this physical, this dynamic, with as much silent communication as spoken, whether it was re wiring a fence or moving a herd or simply travelling like this. At times like this, it was staggering to realise how far priorities had shifted in his own mind. The thought of sitting at a desk was as pointless as it was soulless as it was lonely. With the very many powerful men in the most powerful business cities in the world who had always been his colleagues and role models, Dale compared them to Flynn with his strong hands and his blunt, straightforward morals and every one of those men came up wanting. That whole way of life came up wanting. To be here, outside in this bright blue skied morning was to feel intensely, almost unbearably alive.

They walked the horses uphill, the ground rising in the first of the rolling foothills, and winding slowly around one of the streams that fed the river. About an hour from the ranch, Dale saw movement in the distance, in a valley where the stream grew wider and faster over a rocky bed, and caught sight of the herd scattered below them, mares and foals grazing on the green grass by the water.

"Bandit's missed us." he said to Flynn, reining Hammer in to watch. Flynn shook his head, indicating a hill further on from the herd. The big stallion stood like a rock, head turned, ears forward, watching their approach.

"He saw us before we saw him. Heard us coming – or scented us. Look at the herd formation down there." Flynn sat back in the saddle, wrists crossed easily on his lap. "This time in the morning, good conditions, good weather, they feel safe and they're spread out, but they're still in formation and they'd close up in a minute if need be. See Marika?"

"She's the lead mare." Dale picked her out, grazing near the centre of the group. Several other mares with foals were close to her.


"Yes. The herd puts the high status members at the centre. Best protected and in the strongest position to lead. The further out the mares stand from the centre, the lower their status and the more they're herd protectors. The ones right on the edge of the group are on point, see how they're stood with their backs to Marika? Watching for danger. And whatever they're doing, you'll see there's never less than two facing where they've come from, forming the rearguard."

It looked so casual. Just horses, grazing. And yet when you looked at the deeper pattern you could see the lines of defence, a wild herd independent and alert, and even in their casual grazing, heads regularly lifted and looked, keeping watch. Flynn started Leo forward again, walking down the valley. 


"The lead mare is the stallion's favourite – sometimes just the one he likes best. But the high status mares in the herd tend to be the best breeders. The stallions instinctively know good blood. Natural selection, the best is best protected to continue the line. The foals Bandit and Marika are keeping in the middle, you can bet will be the finest of this year's stock."

"Are all herds organised like this?"

"Ones left to run free as they would in the wild." Flynn said mildly. "You see the results in the quality of the bloodlines and the fertility of the herd. Bandit breeds true every time, and almost every mare in the herd foals successfully each year because he and every mare have their own relationship. I could sit up here and watch them for hours. Horses form incredibly highly organised social groups. Look at some of Philip's books in the study some time, there's a shelf of horse behaviourist work."

And there was a depth of knowledge in those simple comments that spoke worlds to Dale. Flynn, Riley, Paul, Jasper, they were intelligent men who had given that intelligence and years of experience to learning things about the land around them and the animals they cared for, that most people would never be aware of. There was nothing simple or mindless about the work here, there was knowledge enough to keep a man learning every day of his life, and Philip – Philip, who's advice CEOs had flown out here to seek – must have discovered that. David, who had lived a wild life and had finally settled here, must have known that.

Bandit had recognised them. Dale saw him make his way unhurriedly down into the midst of the herd, pausing by a mare who raised her head and looked towards him, and Bandit rubbed his neck against hers, standing with her for a moment. Then he stepped towards two of the small foals who were dancing and bouncing in the grass some way from their mothers. One of them promptly stretched his head up to Bandit, who bent his great head on his heavy neck to touch noses. The other foal bounced sideways and scampered away, and the big stallion suddenly bounced back, chasing in a circle around the foal, his massive feet perilously close but never contacting, and the foal bounding with excitement and not the slightest trace of fear. When Bandit dropped into a walk and moved through the mares to Marika, the foal trotted alongside him, butting at his sire's flank with his little head.

"How is Marika his favourite?" Dale asked, watching the stallion drop his head to graze alongside the lead mare, lifting his head once more to scent the wind and watch while he chewed.

"He's got a big herd here." Flynn led the way down a steeper part of the slope, leaning back to help Leo balance. "Like with people, there are casual friendships and closer friendships. Some of the mares he'll spend more time with and show particular affection for. With Marika, there's active courtship behaviour between them even when she's in foal."

"How can you tell?"


Flynn gave him a brief smile. " He'll nuzzle and nip at them, push at them and there's a lot of whickers and sounds. Belle flirts with Bandit and he flirts back – Paul calls her the scarlet woman. Lots of biting and chasing and posturing. But he'll spend a lot of his time with Marika and herd her to keep her with him. He'll take foals out on patrol with him too from his favourite mares, I've seen that happen plenty of times. He'll go to their mothers to collect one or two, and they'll go off with him dancing and excited like kids going on an outing."

They'd reached the valley floor and Flynn rode slowly around the perimeter of the herd. From experience after weeks of working the ranch under his direction, Dale looked too at the condition of each animal, watching for signs of a limp in the walk, a dull coat or weight lost especially in the foals, one standing apart from the others.

"Belle's foaled." Flynn commented with exasperation, nodding at the mare who was grazing while a very small foal nursed beside her. "She's a contrary so and so, she never gives us any warning or time to bring her in, she just goes off and does it by herself."


"It's tiny," Dale said slowly, watching the little beast drink. "It looks just like Bandit, it's going to be his colour."

"Can't be more than a day old." Flynn said wryly. "It looks fine, no need to bring her or it in now. They're on the safest territory on the ranch here and amazingly, she's a good mother. And Marika won't take them far while it's so tiny. I want to go further down the valley and check the streams are clear."

Dale turned Hammer to follow, watching Belle lick at her foal. Leo pulled a little at the reins and Flynn let him stop at the stream side, waiting while Leo ducked his head to the water and drank. It happened so fast that Dale barely saw it. Leo shook his head, splashing water and the foal on the other side of the stream startled hard as it felt the spray. A second later Belle bolted across the stream and into Leo, teeth bared and screaming. Leo reared in panic, Bandit exploded out of the herd of mares towards them and Belle lashed out with her hind feet, catching Leo still rearing.

Leo seemed to fall in slow motion. Dale felt his stomach turn to ice as he realised the big gelding was tipping past the point of balance, he saw Flynn kick the stirrups free but he and Leo seemed to go down together on the grass. Belle lashed out again and Dale dug his heels into Hammer, charging her and shouting at the top of his lungs.

"Belle, back off! Get back!"

The shout and Hammer's pushing between her and Leo made her retreat. She watched for a moment, snorting, then returned to her foal and it followed her as she moved away, closer to the other mares. Bandit reached them and dropped from a gallop to a high trot, circling them with his ears back, watching. Dale flung himself down from Hammer's back. Leo rolled for a moment, and Dale couldn't see Flynn, then Leo lurched to his feet and Flynn was behind him, sitting up on the grass. He raised a hand as Dale ran to him, looking rather dazed.

"I'm ok. I'm ok, he didn't land on me."
 

Grabbing him was not going to help. Dale dropped on his knees on the grass and lightly put a hand on Flynn's back, unable not to touch him, feeling Flynn's heart thundering under his palm. Flynn took a few deep breaths and held his right forearm for a moment, massaging it very gingerly and flexing his fingers, but his eyes were on Leo who was tentatively touching his fore foot to the grass and then raising it again quickly, limping slowly and painfully a few steps before he stood still and shook. Dale instinctively braced Flynn as he staggered to his feet, and followed him, hearing the softness of Flynn's voice as he approached Leo, his good hand held out to catch the bridle.

"All right. All right mate. Stand. Stand."

The stable command seemed to help. Numbed, Dale ducked automatically under Flynn's arm and took the bridle, moving slowly enough not to spook Leo, and Flynn knelt on the grass to run his hand down Leo's forelegs, first the one he stood on and then the one he held up. He spent several minutes feeling and manipulating, then sat back on his heels, face expressionless.


"I can't tell."

"What might it be?" Dale said softly, holding Leo's head and mechanically rubbing his nose.


"Tendon. Sprain. Fracture." Flynn moved to check Leo's back legs briefly, then got up and rubbed his neck. "All right boy. It's all right."

"What do you need?" Dale asked, watching him. Flynn looked up, hands still on the shivering Leo.


"Stay here with him. I'll get the others and we'll move him back to the ranch."

He looked white, and he was still favouring the forearm. Dale shook his head without hesitation. 


"I'll go. You handle Leo better than I can and you look shaky."

Flynn gave him a long and searching look, and then nodded. "Ok. Send Jas up here, he'll know what we need. Then take Riley and get Raglan and Boris. Riley will know where they are. They'll be strong enough to walk Leo back in a sling." He began to unbuckle Leo's tack, lightening the weight on him, and Dale came to help. "Bring Nekkid back with you too, I'll ride him home. Remind Paul he can't bring one of the four by fours up here or we'll be towing it out of a stream, and ask him to track down Clara. Got all that?"


"Yes." Dale said as a statement of fact, still watching him. "Will you be all right?"

"I'm fine." Flynn put Leo's saddle down on the grass. "Don't run Hammer into the ground, there's no need."

No need, leaving him after a fall like that? Dale made no comment, took Hammer's bridle and swung himself up into the saddle, trying not to too obviously watch Flynn or Leo as he headed Hammer north east towards the ranch. 





Breakfast was over and Jasper was visible in the corral as Dale trotted Hammer into the yard. He straightened up as Dale waved, and Riley, in sight with a broom sweeping out the stables, came out of the open door.

"Hey! We missed you at breakfast - what have you done with Flynn?"

"Leo had a fall." Dale slid to the ground and hooked the rein over the porch rail with no time to waste on pleasantries. "Flynn wants Raglan and Boris. He said they can walk Leo back in a sling, he's damaged a foreleg."

"Hell." Riley said eloquently, throwing the broom back towards the stables and heading towards the corral at a run. "Jas!"


Jasper, who had started to walk towards them, broke into a run. Dale left Riley to explain and took the porch steps several at a time. Paul was washing dishes and talking to Gerry and both looked up in surprise as Dale appeared in the kitchen.

"Good morning-" Paul started to say cheerfully, and then stopped, his face changing. "What's happened?"


"Leo fell, he's hurt a foreleg. Flynn's hurt an arm." Dale said briefly, going to the cupboard where the water bottles lived and taking three to the tap to fill them. It was getting hot outside and neither he nor Flynn had taken much water with them, not planning to be out long.  "He said to remind you that the four by four won't go up there, and he's going to walk Leo back in a sling."


"Oh God." Gerry said in shock. "Is he all right? How did he fall?"

"How hurt and how bad?" Paul opened a cupboard and pulled down a pack which he sorted through rapidly, coming up with a card of pills.


"No blood." Dale fastened the bottles and slung the straps over his shoulder, not for the first time wondering if anything at all panicked Paul. "He's favouring the arm but he can move his fingers. Leo's not standing on the leg. Flynn asked for you to call Clara."

"I'll go and get her, it'll be quicker." Paul opened the freezer and took out several plastic packs, then dug in yet another cupboard for a small insulated bag. "Take these, make Flynn take the painkillers and use the ice on himself as well as Leo. Was he ok otherwise?"

"He asked me to take Nekkid back for him." Dale said steadily, looking straight at Paul.

And you know exactly what that means, don't you? Paul thought, getting the message Dale was giving him. Nekkid was one of the most stolid, easy horses they had, the safest transport for someone needing to sit rather than ride.

"I'll get Nekkid," Gerry said, dodging past Dale to get to the door. Dale followed him and Paul put out a hand to stop him.


"Dale. Dale. Look at me. Are you ok?"

Dale met his eyes, surprised, barely breaking his stride out of the door. 

"Me? …Yes."

He might as well have added stop wasting time!

Riley and Jasper were assembling kit in the yard and Riley was rapidly tacking up Snickers and Gucci. Dale untied Hammer and led him across to the water trough by the stables, making a quick and careful judgement on the big gelding's condition and fitness for another ride. Not tired, not fed up, and well aware something was afoot. He was watching Snickers even while he drank. Riley tightened Snickers' girth and swung up into his saddle, gathering up his reins.

"Jas, I'm going with Dale to get the other horses."

"I've got everything else we'll need." Jasper said calmly. "Where exactly, Dale?"


"Third valley south west from the home pastures, about four miles where the creek gets wide and rocky." Dale dug a foot up in the stirrup and pulled himself up onto Hammer's broad back, walking him to join Riley. As they walked out of the yard, he saw Jasper pull keys from his pocket and head into the house.

"Paul's gone to get Clara," Dale said to Riley as Riley led him along the fence line of the stable pastures, two head collars and leading reins looped on his saddle, his face unusually reserved. 

"Clara does an early morning surgery at her place," Riley said over his shoulder. "Small animals, before she does her rounds. Quicker to go over there than to get her to answer a phone. What happened?"

"Leo spooked Belle and she's foaled. She charged Leo and he went over backwards." Dale nudged Hammer into a trot to keep pace with Riley. Riley didn't answer. The fenced paddocks went back for some way from the stables in a long line, and were well sized. The yearlings looked up with interest as they passed, but Riley kept moving, heading for a paddock where three big, heavy boned Clysdale horses were grazing peacefully.

"You've got shire horses!" Dale said, startled for a few seconds out of grim anxiety.

"They pull hay wagons, cars out of the mud, they're our triple A service." Riley said shortly, dismounting and climbing the fence. "Open the gate."

The Clysdales came gladly to Riley, surrounding him, and Dale saw him pull his hand out of his pocket, sharing around some of the oats he and the others often carried. He slipped head collars onto the roan and the paint shires and they followed him through the gate, padding placidly after him. Dale shut the gate and took the lead rope on the paint shire.


"Boris?"


"Yes. That's Petra." Riley nodded at the remaining shire who was shambling alongside them on the other side of the fence, and mounted Snickers, clicking to Raglan who willingly moved his massive feet into a trot.

The big horses moved at a steady, heavy speed over the grass although not at the canter both Dale and Riley would have preferred, and Riley said very little while they rode. It was an hour before they came down into the valley where Gerry and Jasper were visible by the stream below, with Flynn who was sitting on the grass. Leo was standing with Jasper, and even from this distance Dale could see Bandit with his light mane and tail. The big stallion was standing neck to neck with Leo and nosing at him. As they reached the stream side Dale saw the stallion was licking him gently.

They dismounted on the banks of the stream and Dale caught Raglan's leading rein from Riley as Riley slid to the ground and went straight to Gucci, pulling up the flap of the saddle.

"It's not that bad, Ri." Jasper called over, but Dale saw with Riley the heavy barrel of a shotgun strapped in place. Not the usual light rifle, but something far more powerful. His stomach went cold and he looked sharply at Flynn, realising what Jasper had gone back into the house for and why Riley was so tense. Flynn was still pale and sitting on the grass, the forearm across his chest and Riley went to him next, stooping without a word to wrap his arms very gently around Flynn's neck. His face was against Flynn's so Dale couldn't see either of their expressions, but Flynn put his good hand up to clasp Riley's head and Dale heard his voice, quiet and matter of fact.

"It's ok half pint. No one's dead or dying."

Riley didn't move. Dale took the ice bag, the water and the pills Paul had given him, deliberately not looking and pretending not to have seen until Riley straightened up and went to stand with Jasper who was wrapping Leo's foreleg despite the gelding's wincing.

"What is it? A break?"

"No." Jasper said decisively. "Nothing that bad. This is a strain, and Flynn's going to be black and blue, but neither of them have anything serious."

Riley muttered something to Leo and put an arm around the gelding's neck, leaning his forehead against Leo's coat. Dale led the placid shires with him to kneel by Flynn, offering the pills and the water. 

"Paul sent these. He said the ice was for you as well as Leo."

Flynn gave him a wry smile and took the pills, unscrewing the top of one of the water bottles. He drank for some time. Dale unzipped the bag, took out the ice packs and the towel covering them, and wrapped the towel around the packs. Flynn accepted the wrapped bundle and gingerly rested his arm against it.


"He ought to be lying down." Jasper said without looking, continuing to wrap.

"He is fine." Flynn shifted his arm against the ice, wincing slightly. "How bad is that leg swelling? Do you want ice?"

"Not while it's wrapped, and he's doing fine. We'll walk him back before it really balloons. Ri, get those slings?"

Riley moved silently to the bag of kit on Gucci's saddle. The wide cloth bands and straps made no sense to Dale but Riley began to buckle them onto Raglan without hesitation. Flynn shut his eyes against the sun, ducking his head. Dale hesitated for a moment, then touched Flynn's shoulder. Flynn didn't take much pressing. He lay slowly back in the thick grass, resting the arm and the ice across his chest. Dale knelt where he was on the grass beside him, seeing the tight lines across Flynn's forehead. This hurt more than he was admitting. Jasper finished the strapping around Leo's foreleg and straightened up, stretching his back and rubbing Leo's face gently with both hands. Bandit was still nuzzling him, licking at his chest and hocks, and it appeared to be helping. Leo was shivering but standing still and he'd let Jasper do what he wanted without protest.

"Well this is fun," Gerry said conversationally, standing holding on to Nekkid and Moo, who were busy, like the brood mares, grazing. "I'd forgotten what Grass and Horses were like."

Riley lifted his head and Looked at him. Gerry shrugged.

"Well it's different, that's all. I'm entitled to an opinion, I just rode for the first time in months when I would rather not have sat down at all today. I call that noble. As the lovely old film says, I'm in mourning for my ass."

Riley turned his attention back to Raglan, and Gerry grinned.

"You hadn't even noticed yours, had you?"

"Shut up." Riley said briefly, working on the harness.

"Such equine passion." Gerry said sentimentally. Flynn spoke without opening his eyes.

"Gerry, shut up."

"Shutting up now."  Gerry met Dale's eyes with a definite twinkle that Dale didn't understand at all. The teasing seemed quite deliberate, poorly timed and less than helpful, but Gerry didn't seem in the least abashed.

"Can I help?" Dale asked Riley quietly. Riley shook his head.

"Quicker to do than explain and I've almost done it. Jas?"

He led Raglan over to stand against Leo's side and Jasper took his head collar while Riley went to get Boris. When he led the second shire over, he clicked to Bandit who was standing in his way, and eventually pushed to move the stallion back.

"Hey – talk to him from over there boy, we're trying to help too."

"I thought Bandit didn't like geldings." Dale said softly, watching. Riley pulled the straps of the sling under Leo's belly to reach Boris, buckling the sling into place.


"Leo's his son, and Bandit knows he's hurt." Flynn said beside him, eyes still closed. "Foal from this herd. Makes a difference. They remember. They always remember."

"That's set." Riley said to Jasper, who went to Raglan's side, and between them they began to tighten the straps, fastening them until the slings lifted Leo, not off his feet but taking a good part of his weight between Raglan and Boris who stood calmly, unmoved by the burden. Leo however promptly began to struggle, twisting and whinnying, and Riley caught his head collar, soothing him. Boris jerked as Leo kicked him and a second later Jasper jogged around to free the straps, releasing Boris from the harness and leading him out of the way of Leo's hooves.

"He's too freaked," Riley said in the same soothing voice he was using to Leo, holding onto his head collar with both hands to stop him tossing his head or backing as he wanted to. "Give him a few minutes and we'll try again? Ok Leo. It's ok baby. It's fine."

Jasper put a hand against Leo's side and stood where Boris had been standing, leaning his weight against the gelding's shoulder. Leo calmed slowly, shivering and ducking his head down. Bandit rubbed necks with him and whickered, a very soft, deep sound that Dale felt more than heard. Flynn opened his eyes and then rolled up to his feet, still holding his arm across his chest.

"Try it with Bandit in the harness."

"Bandit'll go nuts." Riley protested. Flynn shook his head.


"I've ridden him, he's halter trained."

"With the mares out here? He won't leave them."

Flynn flexed his elbow a few times, then handed the ice packs to Dale and came to Boris, taking the head collar off him and walking over to Bandit who was still nosing at Leo. Bandit didn't look for a minute at the halter as Flynn held it out. Flynn waited, saying nothing. Jasper stood very still, weight still against Leo's shoulder, watching Flynn. Then Bandit lifted his head and Flynn slipped the halter over, clicking softly to him. Bandit walked quietly around in a circle and alongside Leo, and came to a halt where Flynn stopped him. Leo lifted his head to touch Bandit's and stood still, and Flynn leaned under Bandit's belly, taking the straps and fastening the harness quietly over Bandit's back and shoulders. He was not too far off a match for Raglan in height and closer still in power, and this time when Flynn and Jasper tightened the sling, lifting weight slowly from Leo's feet, Leo stood still and quietly.


It was because Flynn was there. Dale could see the big stud stallion standing calmly and he understood it as completely as Bandit did. Flynn was the one holding the harness, Flynn was standing beside him. This might be strange, but if this was what Flynn wanted then it was all right.

"Riley and Dale," Flynn said quietly. "Start the mares moving and keep them together where Bandit can see them. Watch out for the foals and if Belle decides to be a bitch, let her go. We'll bring her in later if need be. Gerry, take Boris and lead the way. Take it slowly. Dale, catch Nekkid for me."

Jasper clicked to Raglan, and the big shire and Bandit took a few steps forward, Leo stepping with his three good legs between them.

Dale circled to the back of the herd and from the other side, heard Riley give the long, familiar whistle. All the mares lifted their heads. It was a mathematical problem like a chess board or a pool table. You touched one part to make other parts move, you positioned yourself at the right trajectories, influencing the game before you - Dale touched Hammer into a trot and approached a mare at the side of the herd, and for a moment she watched him coming, apparently baffled, then she began to walk ahead of him and the mares in front of her stirred and began to walk too, bunching slowly together as Dale moved at the apex of the triangle, steering them. On the other side of the herd Riley had started the mares at the back walking and within a few seconds the entire herd was on the move. On either side of Bandit and Raglan, Flynn and Jasper stayed close, ready to release the straps in an instant, but the harnessed group of three moved smoothly, walking as if they had been training for years, and the slow procession moved down through the pastures, over the grass on their way home.





The mares pressed into the yard as they reached the ranch, quickening their pace as they approached the corral, and Dale saw the corral gate was open, and the gate beyond it that led from the drive into open land had been closed. He leaned over from Hammer's neck to close the home pastures gate behind them. The herd was contained now in the ranch yard itself, and the mares wandered towards the corral, pausing to graze on the drive. Riley slid down from Snickers and tied up his reins, and Dale followed him, going to the stable pasture where Jasper and Flynn were leading Raglan, Bandit and Leo in their harness. The dark woman that Dale had seen around the ranch before was sitting on the fence with Paul and as Riley shut the stable pasture gate, she slid down, coming to help unbuckle the sling.

"That looks like your work," she commented to Jasper, nodding at the wrapping on Leo's leg as she reached them, and Jasper smiled but put out a hand to warn her back.

"Give us a minute to get them free."

The woman stood back and her eyes widened as she saw who stood on the other side of Leo.


"Tell me that isn’t your stud?"

"Yes." Riley took Leo's head collar. Clara shook her head.

"It can't be. He's standing there like a lamb."

"He's a sweetheart and he's brighter than I am." Riley said shortly and vehemently.


Jasper freed Raglan from the harness and Riley led Leo gently forward out of the sling. Instantly, Flynn took the halter from over Bandit's head and turned him loose, and the big stallion shook himself, but made no effort to walk away. Flynn rubbed the stallion's neck, watching Bandit survey the yard, contenting himself that his mares were contained and safe. Then he wheeled and Dale saw the huge muscles bunch in his haunches, gathering power which suddenly exploded in two strides at the fence and he sailed over it, landing lightly in the yard and pacing over to join Marika who was grazing at the fence line. 

"Well I feel safer with him out there than in here." Clara said wryly, crouching to unwrap Leo's foreleg. Jasper stood with her and Riley gave Leo's head collar over to him, coming to take Raglan.

"I'll walk the shires back."

"Gerry and Dale, turn the riding horses into the training pen," Jasper called. "Bandit won't like them loose around the mares. Flynn, go inside and let Paul look at that arm."

"In a minute." Flynn climbed the fence and disappeared into the barn, coming out with the wide black bucket that lived just inside the door. It was half filled with oats and Bandit stepped confidently towards him, knowing who they were for. Only one horse on the ranch had the unfailing privilege of being hand fed. Flynn held the bucket for him, and while Dale couldn't hear a sound, he could see from Flynn's moving lips he was talking to the stallion while he ate.


It took twenty minutes to extract the riding horses from Bandit's herd, take the tack from them and turn them out into the training pen, and Dale did the lion's share of it, more confident and experienced with the horses than Gerry was, and simply moving a good deal faster and more efficiently than Gerry, although he didn't notice it. He filled the water trough in the pen when he was done and the horses promptly nudged each other aside for a turn at emptying it. Clara was still kneeling, working on Leo's foreleg, and Riley was sitting on the fence, watching. The mares were grazing along the yard. Paul was leaning on the porch, defending the pots of flowers from several interested noses, and watching Belle's new foal, who had curled up on the first patch of shaded grass and gone to sleep. Gerry piled the last of the tack on the fence beside the barn and stretched his back.

"We're going to be the rest of the day cleaning that lot. I haven't been here twenty four hours yet and I'm already knackered."

"It'll do you good." Paul said, smiling at him. "You can write to Ash and tell him how we're mistreating you."

"You think he'll be sympathetic?" Gerry demanded. "He keeps on at me about a little seven pounds I put on at Christmas and how I don't get enough exercise, he'll love
this."

Bandit finished the last of the oats and Flynn hung the bucket on the fence, crossing stiffly to stand beside Jasper, watching Clara work.

"Do you want to look at Belle's foal before we turn them out?"

"Yes, I'll see to it." Jasper put his hand behind Flynn's head, cupping and pushing him gently towards the house. "Leave it now. Go and get that arm dealt with."


Flynn walked slowly up the porch steps and Paul straightened up off the rail.

"Gerry, guard these pots for me please?"

"Can I do it lying down?" Gerry said languidly.


Dale hovered for a moment, feeling very surplus to requirement, an eye on Clara working on Leo, the other on Paul who was waiting for Flynn. Neither seemed to need him. He followed Flynn up the porch steps and into the kitchen where Flynn sat down heavily on a kitchen chair and surrendered to Paul easing his shirt off. Bare to the waist, he was nut brown, a tan line showing on his upper arms where his shirt usually rested. Bruises were already starting to darken across the hard plains of his shoulders and Paul turned Flynn a little to look at them, hands gentle.

"Are your ribs all right?"

Flynn turned slightly from side to side, raising his arms. "Seem to be. I landed on my shoulders and that arm."

Paul leaned against the table and took Flynn's hand, working the wrist and fingers before he felt gently along the bones of his forearm. Flynn shut his teeth and turned his head away, catching Dale's eye and making an attempt at a smile, although it didn't last long. 


Dale took a seat at the other end of the table, watching Paul rotate Flynn's forearm from the elbow, palm up, then palm down.

"I don't think you've damaged anything, love. Nothing's swollen much.  I'll run a bath for you; you need to soak before you start to stiffen up."

Flynn shook his head. "I'll be-"

"Fine, yes." Paul put both hands on his shoulders, guiding him very gently to his feet. "Bath. Now. Dale, go and tell Jasper he's in charge."


Dale watched Flynn being herded towards the stairs with a sense of distress he didn't understand. Flynn was obviously not badly hurt; Paul was walking with him, an arm around his waist that held a good deal of affection and care in a way that said he knew exactly how painful the bruising was. But somehow, it was hard to watch.




Jasper was still holding Leo while Clara worked outside, and he looked up and smiled when Dale climbed the fence.

"How is he?"

"Paul said he's bruised, but nothing serious." Still feeling distinctly unsettled, Dale dug his hands into his pockets, watching Clara. "He said to tell you you're in charge."

Jasper nodded, still watching him.


"Thank you. Would you help Riley and Gerry get that tack cleaned and put away?"

Riley and Gerry were working in the yard around the still grazing mares, going through the heap of tack from seven horses, and Riley glanced up as Dale joined them.

"Is Flynn ok?"

"Paul said it's just bruising." Dale picked up a saddle and the kit and hung it over the fence to work on it, hands moving rapidly. Riley cleared his throat after a minute, pausing to watch him.

"Dale…….? Jasper's watching."

I don't care.

Dale stopped, took a breath and made himself stop. Repetitive, mechanical tasks were so temping to run at high speed. It was an itching temptation, because the faster you had to do it the more you had to concentrate and the less room there was to think about or be aware of anything outside the pattern –

He swallowed on the thought, a little surprised. It was the first time he had ever realised that he did this deliberately. 

"Anyway, if you charge through and get this done," Gerry added comfortably, "They'll only find us something else to do. The secret is to take as long as possible."


The attitude behind that was so fundamentally – wrong – that Dale woke up out of his reverie and stared at him. Riley glanced up, caught Dale's eye and grimaced.

"Dale, ignore him. What's Paul doing with Flynn?"

"Wanted him to take a bath." Dale turned his attention back to the saddle he was working on. "Flynn wasn't keen."

"Paul will win." Riley flipped the saddle soap over in his hand. Gerry sat gingerly down on the grass with a grunt of discomfort.


"I was so glad to see it was his right arm he landed on."

There were no shortage of clients and colleagues that Dale had been sent to work with who had been unpleasant – ranging from tedious to flat out obnoxious. A professional had no difficulty recognising their feelings and then setting them aside. Dale acknowledged the silent I don't like you, and let it go.

"Riley!" Jasper called across the yard. "Get me one of the inflatable splints?"

"Coming." Riley got up, heading towards the stables.

"So who found you straying then?" Gerry said cheerfully, dropping the cloth and the bridle he was working on. "Jas? Flynn? You're walking rather nicely to heel for someone new."

Body language was key. Dale had attended sufficient training and classes to know very well how to both read and to use his own body language deliberately. Open posture, relaxed, hands loose, non committal expression….


Gerry grinned at him.

"You don't say much, do you?"

"When I have something to say." Dale said steadily. Gerry laughed.

"Ouch. Are you always this efficient? It's living with too many Tops that does it you know. It has a terrible effect on Riley. If it makes you work like a chipmunk on speed too, although given that your name is Dale-"

"Excuse me." Dale interrupted, getting up with the cleaned saddle in hand. He took it into the stable, past Jasper who was watching and who smiled at him. Dale returned the smile, still mechanically controlling his body language. In the tack room he hung up the saddle and then folded his arms and rested his forehead on them. Stomach churning, mouth dry, he had no idea why he felt so awful. Or why his instincts were demanding that he got away, as far away as possible. He'd never wanted to go for a run so badly in his life.


Flynn had a real problem with jogging. Or running.

And Flynn was in no state to deal with anyone having a nervous breakdown for no good reason. There were no shortage of people to look after Flynn, and who had far greater right to do so. Dale pulled himself together and walked through the stables, past the stable pasture door, to the door at the very end that led out of the back of the building. The stables now stood between him and anyone else's eyes – the house, Riley and Jasper or Gerry. Keeping the building behind him, Dale climbed the fence into the home pastures which stretched ahead of him for miles, and started walking.

***


Copyright Rolf and Ranger 2009


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